Save Our Stages

Music venues struggle to make ends meet.

Footsteps echo throughout the heavy silence. Amedeo Rossi, the longtime owner of the downtown Des Moines club Vaudeville Mews, is taking in the tiny venue one last time. The black walls and sticker-covered staircase. The bar tucked underneath the upstairs lounge. The stage lights, hanging from the ceiling, slowly warming the air around them. He pauses in the center of the stage, those blinding lights highlighting his somber face. After 18 years, his club, his Mews, is closing.   

It’s not alone. What’s happening to the music scene in Des Moines, as well as the rest of the Midwest, is happening across the country. The strain of the pandemic is forcing many small music venues to make difficult decisions. Whether to hold shows if local mandates allow knowing it could put patrons, workers, and the few musicians willing to play at risk. Whether to cut entertainment all together and struggle on selling drinks alone. Whether to shutter for now and hope the good times come back. Or whether to throw in the towel all together. 

Regardless of the choice, massive amounts of damage has already been done—and more may be to come. Pollstar, which covers the concert industry in America, estimates $8.9 billion worth of ticket revenue will be lost if venues remain closed through the end of 2020. On top of that, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) surveyed its members and found that 90% of independent venues will close permanently in a few months without government funding. Some iconic clubs like Threadgill’s in Austin, the Music Room in Atlanta, and The Mill in Iowa City have already gone under.

Billboard magazine’s website keeps a growing list of establishments that have shuttered for good. As of this writing there are 84 names on that list, including the Mews. Known as a shotgun, dirty rock venue, Rossi’s passion project was a staple in Des Moines. At some point, though, he says he had to be realistic about his chances of making it through the pandemic in an already break-even business. 

“It’s just inevitable that what happened to the Mews is going to happen to others—the bills are going to overwhelm the lack of revenue,” Rossi says. 

That last part is why NIVA is advocating for the Save Our Stages Act, legislation to provide relief to venues, promoters, and festivals. And the act has bipartisan support. It was part of the $2.2 trillion relief plan the House of Representative passed in the beginning of October, and the smaller proposed Senate relief package. But because the legislative chambers can’t agree on a final relief package, the act—and its help for venues—is stalled. 

And that’s left many places with few options. Lefty’s, another Des Moines club known for promoting all genres, had to ask for donations to stay afloat. Anne Mathey, co-owner of Lefty’s, says they created a GoFundMe and asked for Venmo donations. After having to close their doors for the shutdown on the five-year anniversary of receiving the keys to the building, Mathey says it’s been a battle to stay open. 

“I feel like I have tunnel vision of just trying to keep digging and keep the lights on, and everything else just kind of flows by the wayside at this point,” Mathey says. 

To generate a steady source of income, Lefty’s opened its doors to another business. During the second shutdown, they built walls to create a store within the venue. In August, Hazel’s Smoke and Vape moved in. As she learns how to adapt and adjust, Mathey remains hopeful that Lefty’s will be able to drag themselves out of the hole in 2021. Still, this year has not been easy. 

“It’s been a pain in the ass, to put it mildly,” Mathey says. 

Sam Summers couldn’t agree more. Summers runs First Fleet Concerts, which books concerts around the Midwest including the Hinterland Festival, and is an owner of Wooly’s, a live music venue in Des Moines’s East Village. He believes concerts will be back on track by fall 2021, with arena touring making a comeback by 2022. He should make it until then, if the boredom doesn’t drive him nuts.

“I’m typically 300 emails deep on a day when things are rolling,” Summers says. “Right now, outside of election emails, I’m not really getting emails. Nobody’s really working right now, which has its upsides because it’s allowed me to spend time with my family and my daughter.” 

Part of the struggle for his businesses, as well as many others, is the lack of cash flow. When people feel comfortable to buy tickets again, Summers says he urges them to do so the second they’re ready. Many small venues live paycheck to paycheck, so he’s hoping that the next stimulus offers support to those in need. Recovering may take time, but music is resilient. 

“Around the country, it’s going to be gradual,” Summers says. “I think everybody wants to make it work. Everybody that owns a venue owns it because they love it.”

As a way to keep the lights on, venues have turned to live streaming, but Rossi knew that Vaudeville Mews was not going to be the one to reinvent virtual performances. Having exhausted all options, he was left no other choice. 

“We gave up,” Rossi says matter-of-factly. 

However, Rossi does believe the music industry needs to create an appetite for virtual content. Thom Kutz agrees. He co-owns xBk, the newest venue in Des Moines. He is acquiring equipment to handle more live streaming, which Kutz says effectively expands the venue into a television studio too. 

When he first committed to live streaming, Kutz had no clue how to do any of it—his whole life had been live entertainment. The main perk of streaming is trying to carry on some semblance of normalcy after Kutz was used to seeing multiple shows a week consistently for the past five years. 

“I feel starved for live entertainment to some effect because it has been such a major source of entertainment for me,” Kutz says.

“But the other side of it is, it’s a community aspect. When you’re participating in live entertainment, you’re part of a community and you’re experiencing that communal aspect… community catharsis. When that’s taken away, it sucks. It feels like there’s a hole.” 

The live entertainment industry has been changed irreversibly since the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as a relatively optimistic individual because of the community support that’s flooded xBk’s way, Kutz touched on the alarming reality of struggling venues. 

“People want to see you succeed, and you want to see each other succeed because we are all in this together,” Kutz says. “That’s why it hurts so much going through Covid and the pandemic and watching as other venues are falling off the map. The helping hand that we put out just isn’t enough sometimes. That’s the scary part, and that hurts. There’s no great security in this business.”

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